When I read the definition of native in the OALD, I see the following:

(old-fashioned, offensive) a word used in the past by Europeans to describe a person who lived in a place originally, before white people arrived there

I remember that, when speaking with a friend of mine (American) about the people Columbus called indiani, I was said I should refer to them as American natives.

Is native always considered offensive, or is American natives the exception to the rule?

  • I don't know Italian, but I'm going to guess your question may stem from the possibility that the Italian equivalents for native and indigenous are both reasonably common words. And that "native" Italians tend to use the latter term when referring to their own genetic/cultural heritage. But Anglophones use "native" for all contexts, since "indigenous* isn't a very common word (the "noun" form indigene is vanishingly rare). May 28, 2013 at 14:54
  • @FumbleFingers They are both common words, even though it is indigeno that could be offensive. We say Indigeni dell'Amazzonia when talking of people living in Amazonia, but that word has more a connotation of "people with a less advanced culture." I have never heard of somebody saying gli indigeni atzechi to mean the Aztech. Then, the Italian Ehi tu, indigeno!" is more offensive than _Ehi tu, nativo!" The same is true for _Sono tutti indigeni! or Che indigeni che sono! (I am sorry, I had to use the Italian version, since there is not an Italian adjective for indigenous.)
    – apaderno
    May 28, 2013 at 15:16
  • Well, Native New Yorker was both written and made famous by Americans, and you could reasonably expect I'm a native Londoner to be spoken with pride rather than shame. How does an Italian convey that he was born in Italy, or in some specific city? May 28, 2013 at 15:45
  • @FumbleFingers If I moved from Italy, I would say Sono nativo dell'Italia. Sono originario dell'Italia. or simply Sono nato in Italia. (The last is equivalent of "I was born in Italy.") If I am still in Italy, I would say Sono nato in Italia. or Sono nato in Italia da genitori italiani. if I want to highlight that my parents are Italians too (and they are not immigrants from another country). I could also say Sono italiano da generazioni. if I wanted to highlight my roots are Italian since generations.
    – apaderno
    May 28, 2013 at 16:07
  • oic. Well, I guess the answer to your question is - if the speaker has a manifestly colonialist/imperialist attitude to the natives he's referring to, then native would indeed be "pejorative" in intent. But those natives might well refer to the speaker as a foreigner with pejorative intent. It's not really the words that are potentially offensive - it's the attitude of the speaker. May 28, 2013 at 16:43

1 Answer 1


Actually the phrase is not "American natives" but "Native Americans".

I think what the writer of that definition was trying to say was that the word "native" as a stand-alone noun to mean a person from a non-Western culture with a low level of technology is now considered offensive. Like if you drew a picture of a group of people standing in front of a mud hut, with painted faces and carrying spears, and labeled it "Natives", this would be considered offensive.

The word "native" in general simply means some one or thing that originally comes from a particular place. In this sense it is a perfectly good word. I certainly would not be offended if you referred to me as "a native of New York". We routinely talk about "foods native to the region", about a person's "native language", etc.

But anyway, I don't think there's any simple rule as to what makes a word or phrase offensive. When I was a boy in the 1960s, members of a certain ethnic group were routinely referred to as "negroes". Then about the 1970s or so we were told that this term was offensive, and that we should call them "black". Then in the 1990s we were told that "black" is offensive, and we should call them "African-American". How did "black" go from being the polite term to being offensive? It just did. There's no pattern to such things.

I saw a survey a few years back that found that a majority of American Indians prefer to be called Indians rather than Native Americans. For that matter, I saw a survey fairly recently where they asked black people what they prefer to be called, and 1% said "African Americans", 2% said "black", 96% said "don't care", and there was the usual scattering of other answers.

  • Native is taken as offensive when applied to non-Europeans, for sound historical reasons. By and large, a strict adjectival use is less likely to cause offense, but if it is so deployed that it may be read as an attributive nominal this innocence is lost. May 28, 2013 at 12:49
  • I imagine that "Hey you, native!" would be probably taken as offensive, if I say that to somebody I don't know. :)
    – apaderno
    May 28, 2013 at 13:34
  • @kiamlaluno I'd actually just probably think it was odd, because I don't know that we often use native by itself as a noun--when you say that, it sounds like you're using it as an adjective to my ear, even though you're not. I'm waiting for the rest of the sentence! ;) But yes, I definitely agree you shouldn't go around saying that, haha.
    – WendiKidd
    May 28, 2013 at 20:05
  • Hmm. "Pierre Trudeau is a native of Montreal." Mr Trudeau is not a European, but I doubt he would find that sentence offensive. Or even if we take you to mean non-Westerner: "Jomo Kenyatta was a native of Kenya." Would he be offended by that sentence? Any non-Westerners please chime in.
    – Jay
    May 30, 2013 at 15:23
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    @WendiKidd "Native" can be either a noun or an adjective. "English is my native language." (adjective) "Jack is a native of England." (noun) Where I see the offensive nature is when you say simply "Jack is a native", meaning "a primitive, uncivilized person".
    – Jay
    May 30, 2013 at 15:31

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